Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Garifuna Settlement Day, 2012

Garifuna Settlement Day is a huge celebration here in Dangriga.  It is also a National Holiday, but the largest and most famous celebration takes place right here in my adopted town.  Preparations begin months before the 19th of November, the date on which the Garifuna are believed to have arrived in Belize in the early 19th century.   Last year at this time I wrote a blog entry detailing the history of the Garifuna, but this year I will simply show how I celebrated Settlement Day during this, my last year in Dangriga.

Primary School Children begin preparing for Settlement Day the month before when they are tested on their knowledge of Garifuna history and culture, and winners are chosen for a social studies contest.  Another contest in primary schools is the Miss Garifuna Primary contest.  Girls in Garifuna communities throughout southern Belize compete within their own schools, and then the last five contestants compete here in Dangriga the week before Settlement Day for the honor of being queen in the parade.  The contestants must perform several styles of Garifuna dance, must give an oral presentation in Garifuna, as well as answer questions posed to them in Garifuna, and they must know their culture very well.  Here are some photos of the contestants from this year’s contest for queen.
Miss Garifuna Primary contest

This year's queen, Deveen Martinez from Hopkins
My friend Desiree Pascual and I are wearing our Garifuna dresses

The Primary school children of Dangriga also celebrate by performing at a children’s rally on the Friday before Settlement Day, and participating in a parade on that same Friday.  I was fortunate to be present for both.
Some primary school children re-enact the settlement of Dangriga
At the children's rally
The children's parade
I was also fortunate this year to be present for the unveiling of a new mural in the Dangriga Town Hall by Garifuna artist, Pen Cayetano.   This mural, entitled, Hayawaina Way├║nugu (“Imagery of our Ancestors”), covers one entire wall of the Town Hall, and its unveiling was celebrated on Sunday, November 18 with music, dancing, and speeches. 
Pen Cayetano discusses the symbolism in his mural
The children of Gulisi Primary School dancing Jankunu
The girls of Gulisi Primary School 
The Griga GLOW Girls (Girls Leading Our World)

On Settlement Day, Monday, November 19, I awoke at 6:00 AM and made my way with two other Peace Corps Volunteers who spent the night with me to the Stann Creek to observe the re-enactment of the landing of the original settlers of Dangriga.
The re-enactment

We also watched a ceremony in front of my house at Alejo Beni Park, and a parade down the Main Street of Dangriga.
Alejo Beni Park
Parade float of the Griga GLOW Girls, a club led by my Peace Corps friend, Cathy Burnham
Cathy and the Griga girls' float
My friend Therese Ariola and I in the parade
Famous Belizean performer, Luva Boy, sings on his float while the rest of us dance through the streets of Dangriga

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Independence Day, 50th Anniversary, a Waterfall and a Zoo

Belize celebrates Independence Day on the 21st of September.  Last year this tiny Central American nation celebrated 30 years of independence from Great Britain.  This year, on Belize's 31st anniversary, Peace Corps Belize celebrated 50 years of service to the people of Belize.  We celebrated in several big ways this year, and I was fortunate to be a part of the planning and execution of these celebrations. 

Below are photographs of the Independence Day parade in Belmopan, the capital.  The entire Peace Corps Belize group of Volunteers and the staff from the office participated.  We designed a “float” (actually a flatbed truck decorated with streamers, balloons and signs), and carried banners and flags as we paraded with our Belizean friends through the streets of Belmopan. 
 On our Independence Day "float"
Kathryn, me, Kelly and Jennifer
Jessica and our "float"

Nina Hermandez, our Peace Corps Country Director

The following day we Volunteers, some Peace Corps staff, teachers, and parents of a school in Belmopan all participated in a community service project.  We assisted in the construction of a library at the Garden City Primary School.  One of my fellow Education Sector Volunteers, Miguelina Cuevas-Post has been organizing this project alongside teachers, the principal and parents of the school for months, and now it is coming to fruition.
 Barbara and Sharmaine and I organize the books for the library
Breezie, Porter and Jay make concrete.
The floor is laid.

Peace Corps Belize also celebrated our 50th anniversary in grand style at the US Embassy.  I will leave the telling of that event for when I receive from Peace Corps the photos that will illustrate it for you.  We were not allowed to bring cameras, cell phones or any other electronic devices into the Embassy compound, so there was only one designated photographer, and he has not given the photos to us yet.

I met two new friends recently and have learned a tremendous amount about Belize while in their company.  They are two young women from Mexico, Brenda and Abril, who are working on their Masters’ theses in International Ecology, and are staying here in Belize for six months.  Brenda is writing a management plan for a small national park nearby, and Abril has been studying frog species in the district of Toledo.  Brenda approached me to ask if I could help her continue to learn English, and although I agreed, I believe I have learned more from her than she has from me.

Recently Brenda led us on a hike through the Billy Barquedier National Park where she has been doing her work.  She hopes to help the community develop plans to make this lovely spot an eco-tourist destination and has given suggestions for its conservation. 

With Brenda and Abril I also visited the Belize Zoo, and I learned much more about the fauna of Belize than I had known before.  In 1983 Sharon Matola, a biologist and circus animal tamer, started the zoo as a last-ditch effort to provide a home for a small collection of wild animals that had been used in a documentary on tropical forests.  She soon discovered that the Belizean people knew little about the animals that inhabited those forests, so she decided to develop a wildlife education center.Today the zoo keeps animals that are orphaned, born at the zoo, rescued, rehabilitated or sent to the zoo as donations from other zoological institutions.  This little zoo receives over 10,000 school children a year to bring them closer to their natural heritage.  It is the most charming zoo I have ever visited.

Lucky Boy, the black jaguar who was rescued from a resort in the southern region of Belize where he had been kept, but mistreated.  He was malnourished but he is gaining strength and will soon move to a new enclosure that the zoo is building especially for him.
The ocelot
Brenda and Abril pose at the entrance of the zoo.
The tapir--Belize's national animal--a distant cousin of the rhinoceros and the horse.
I was given the opportunity to feed Bullet Head, the blind tapir that was rescued after being shot in the head.
Scarlet macaws
Harpy eagle
Jabiru stork
Blue-crowned mot-mot
A baby boa constrictor
The keel-billed toucan
The puma
The peccary--a smelly one!
Junior Buddy the jaguar
In my opinion, this is the most beautiful animal in the kingdom!

Monday, September 17, 2012

A Description of a Special Project

In this blog post I will interrupt the usual chronological narration of my experiences in Belize to interject a description of a project that I have been privileged to participate in for almost a year now.  I have been working alongside five other Peace Corps Volunteers and the wife of the US Ambassador to Belize, to help bring a gorgeous new picture book to the children and teachers of Belize.  The following article that I wrote along with Barbara Thummalapally, our Ambassador’s wife, will introduce this project to you: 

Pat the (Great) Cat: A Jaguar’s Journey Brings an Important Story to Life for the
Children of Belize and the United States

The story of the publishing of the new book Pat the (Great) Cat: A Jaguar’s Journey is a story of two women’s passion for literacy and learning.  It is also a story of collaboration between the people of Belize and the United States.
Pat the (Great) Cat: A Jaguar’s Journey is the result of an international literacy initiative that is joining children across the United States and Belize through the true story of a jaguar from Belize who found his world forever changed as people came to share his land.

Most people know little about the elusive jaguar.  Of the four "great" cats in the world (lion, tiger, jaguar and leopard), the jaguar is the only one found in the Americas.  Students from Belize and from urban Milwaukee, Wisconsin (ages 9-13), took on the task of creating international awareness through an extraordinary literacy journey that celebrates not only the jaguar but the importance of joining hands across nations to impact our natural world through education and friendship.

During the first phase of the project, Nancy Kennedy, of Milwaukee Wisconsin, who had visited Belize on numerous occasions and became a dear friend of the Belize Zoo, developed a passion for the jaguar and for the animal’s plight as an endangered species.  She presented the true story of the down-on-his-luck jaguar, “Pat the Cat”, to students in Milwaukee and Belize.  Pat was captured by farmers enraged by Pat’s killing of their cattle, but was rescued by the Belize Zoo.  Pat’s canine teeth had been broken, so he would no longer be able to survive in the wild jungles of Belize.  At this time, the Milwaukee Zoo was searching for a male jaguar to help with their breeding and education program, and found Pat, who was in need of a home.  Pat was transported to Milwaukee, where he lives to this day.  

Nancy Kennedy’s engaging retelling of his story challenged students both in the US and Belize to learn about the jaguar, to discover and then write about its history and importance to our ecosystems, and to learn how to help ensure that jaguars in the wild have a safe and healthy future.  In early 2012 she enlisted the assistance of Celso Poot and Jamal Andrewin of the Belize Zoo to inspire students in Belizean primary schools to write about Pat the Cat.   At this point in time, Nancy brought another woman with a passion for literacy on board with her, Barbara Thummalpally, the wife of the U.S. Ambassador to Belize.   The project excited students and their teachers--both in the US and Belize--by highlighting how this powerful and important animal impacts their core subjects in science, conservation, geography, history, ecology, social science, art, and the balance of nature.

Nancy then took the children’s writings to the non-profit organization SHARP Literacy, Inc., where they were compiled and edited and became Pat the (Great) Cat: A Jaguar’s Journey.  Beautifully illustrated by award-winning artist Francisco Mora, and written side-by-side in English and Spanish, the book tells a compelling tale of a real Belizean jaguar whose journey from the forests of Belize to the U.S inspires young and old alike.

Nancy Kennedy then asked her friend Barbara to help her bring the book to the children of Belize.  Mrs. Thummalapally arranged for an official launching of the book at a ceremony and celebration at the Ambassador’s residence in Belmopan in October of 2011.  Following the Belize launch of the book, the Ministry of Education, Belize (MOE), gave permission to use the book as a supplementary text in the schools of Belize. This provided the impetus for the second phase of the collaborative project that entails the development of a free, online curriculum that can accompany the book for use by teachers everywhere.  Peace Corps Volunteer educators in Belize agreed to assist in the development of the curriculum and especially with teacher training that has begun to take place in all districts of Belize.

During the Summer Teacher Institute in Environmental Studies and Culture at Chaa Creek in July, educators attending from SUNY Cortland (State University of New York, Cortland),  Peace Corps Volunteers, MOE educators, and master teachers from Pennsylvania, all took part in the institute and developed ideas and lesson plans for PTGC.  These lesson plans were especially designed to integrate all areas of the primary school curriculum.  Now these lesson plans are being coordinated on a website for use by any teacher around the world who wishes to enrich his or her classroom with this beautiful book, Pat the (Great) Cat:  A Jaguar’s Journey.


The following photos show our Pat the Great Cat team at work developing curriculum and presenting workshops to teachers.   It has been so rewarding to collaborate with my colleagues on a project that promises to inspire Belizean children to preserve their natural heritage for future generations.

Our Pat the Great Cat Team:  Barbara Thummalapally Meredith Casper, Ava Hacker, Mickie Cuevas-Post, Barbara Levy, Katrin O'Leary

Meredith and Barbara demonstrate a language arts activity to enrich children's ability to recall what they have read.

We partnered with Belizean teachers who expanded on lessons in science and social studies using Pat the Great Cat as a jumping off point.

Here I am reading the first chapter aloud to the teachers in a workshop.  We demonstrated the Language Experience Approach.

At a workshop we facilitated for over 40 teachers in Belize City

The "Word Wall" I made to show teachers a few techniques for teaching vocabulary to students

Peace Corps Volunteer Linda Martin instructs Belizean teachers on drawing jaguars, and integrating art into their curriculum

Meredith Casper developed a wikispace to collect all lesson plans developed using Pat the Great Cat

Display of drawings made by the teachers in our workshop